Mar 29, 2009

Music: A gift to move and soothe us

Heard a short piece today on the Science Pod from the AAAS. Music seems to have an evolutionary component and may not be "auditory cheesecake" as Stephen Pinker described. Music might be ingrained in our psyche to provide group benefit of some sort. 

Three different pieces of music were played to the Maffa people from Cameron. They were able to distinguish "happy" or "sad" music despite never having been exposed to outside music forms or influences. The researchers concluded an evolutionary component to musical understanding.

Music is a gift that can soothe our nerves, move our tushes an inform our needs. Early music may have been used to alert or describe. It may have helped tell a story or build rapport with new friends. We all make music whenever we open our mouths. You may not find your child's requests or demands for attention melodious but you're hearing music of human interaction. 

I suspect that after hundreds of thousands of years we've really refined our sense and ear for music. Listen to rap, hip hop, rock, soul, ragtime, R&B, juju, reggae, tango, waltz, rondo, no, butoh, raga, folk, calypso, or any of hundreds of other forms of music, now mixed, remixed and mashed. You will quickly hear similarities and differences. Structure, time signature, scale construction, instrumentation, rhythm and language all participate in our sharing of music.

As our species spread across the planet we turned most materials we found into food, toys, tools, garments, and musical instruments. We've learned a variety of systems to record music to share with others and to teach it to our young.

I expect to have more to say about music in the future. I had to write about it today because, after hearing the new evidence from Science, I'm sure music is vital to our brains' growth and balance.

Mar 25, 2009

Santa's Birthday Post. The gift of number.

Only 39 weeks 'til Christmas Day. 

I've reached another prime number. Its been six years since I was prime! 

When humans learned to differentiate by number we slowly became more adept at counting. At first we likely could tell the difference between one and more than one. Between few and many. Now we can accurately count up to 71 or 1,234,456,987,543,954. Number sense is a gift passed on from generation to generation. To some extent as we move along the time line of history our past piles up behind us in the form of numbers. Years ago, in the past decade, 200 years ago, 10,000 BCE. These logs or recitations of past events gave new meaning and understanding to our ancestors. We marked off the passing of time by the season and the year. 

Imagine now, when credit default swaps trade over ethernets based on complex algorithms and calculations of future market value assuming a 2.2% growth rate and 1.7% inflation. Numbers fill our life with meaning and confusion. Gifts are not always the boon they are intended to be. In fact a gift's value can change depending on our cultural needs. I'll explore this idea later when I talk about the gift of faith!

Mar 23, 2009

Ancient gifts. Art: Those magic symbols.

Continuing my thoughts on gifts from the distant past. 

Art: Magic symbols that represented the animals or plants we sought for food. Or, music that recreated the sounds of the forest with special emphasis on dangerous or useful animals. Stories, told with gesture became dance. As with language, a gift that really continues to give benefits to the present day.

When cave painting are discovered in France or ocher in the Great Rift Valley of Africa we confront the symbolic use of materials from peoples who lived tens of thousands of years ago. I'm sure that all the earliest artistic urges left no permanent mark since they were most likely drawn in the sand or ashes, or marked out with rocks, twigs, branches, or leaves. 

The earliest art (by which I mean visual, musical, movement, culinary, agricultural, architectural, or wearable) is probably all lost to scholarship. But, we can surmise that growing brains of people led us to great leaps of creativity. By taking a chance on a crazy idea our ancestors dreamed, thought, or created a new way of living. Gone were the days when we could not imagine the world through the eyes of the others. This ability to see the world as if through the eyes of another put us on the path to hot fashions, really great food, the best and worst TV programs, and a diamond crusted skull from Damien Hirst.

Mar 19, 2009

A Lesson learned: Gift by example.

In the past dew days the country seems consumed with bonuses paid to about 400 executives from the derivitives trading division of AIG. American International Group is a large insurance company responsible in part for the current lack of trust on the financial markets. These bonuses, in excess of $150 million, have clearly sparked outrage from people making much less income than any of the recipients. 

Since early in 1981, leaders of our country have been facilitating the movement of large sums of cash from the poor and middle class to the rich. A combination of tax cuts, increased contracting for services, reduced oversight of markets, lessened regulatory requirements and relaxation of rules across the spectrum of governing groups has allowed the portion of our annual income that goes to the top 1% of earners to swell from a healthy seven percent to a jaw dropping 25% in 2007. Now the richest among us have raked in one half of all wealth and a quarter of our annual income. We get angry about bonuses paid to a small group of financial experts. Where was the outrage at the money wasted blowing up huge swaths of Iraq? Or the wasted billions in tax give-backs on capital gains? We weren't so mad at the money lost due to lax oversight of WorldCom, Enron, or HealthSouth.

Workers and their managers have created the wealthiest nation on earth and much like the slaves who moved the rock for the majestic buildings of Washington DC, we can marvel at its splendor, but we cannot really participate in the riches. Our country will not ultimately be judged by the gaudy fashions or ostentatious displays of consumption. Our democracy, our republic will be judged by how well we care for the least of our citizens. With homeless people crowding urban cores and foreclosures now hitting the unemployed as well as the greedy speculators workers should be angry but, not at AIG execs or the current government. We should be mad at the failed leadership of the past twentyeight years. The group of politicians and the thinkers who supported them and told us that government was the problem; that taxes were your money being taking out of your pocket; that the role of government is fighting expeditionary wars in far away lands. These people, with the best of intentions led us in the wrong direction and now I fear they are to proud to admit their mistake.

Government is good. We need a government to create a more perfect union, to build the commons, to establish justice and to ensure domestic tranquility.  Public education, public health, public markets, and public information are values to be lauded. Public science and public art create pride in peoples that transcends hard times. 

The only way to benefit from the crisis of trust in financial markets of late is to learn the lessons of evolution. Survival of the Fittest means which species works best together, not which species created the individual with the biggest house. If we learn the lesson of cooperation we can survive many perils now and in the future.

Mar 17, 2009

Language: The gift that redefines everything

Since we're on the  really old gifts that we humans have received from our ancestors I thought I'd take a few sentences to talk about language. 

Mary's (Mrs. Claus)  idea is that language was passed on by mothers as they cooed and tended to their babies. I think the sharing of a cooked evening meal I talked about yesterday helped language develop. Folks need a way to communicate the day's events or plan for tomorrow's. Our need to communicate on the foraging trail or in a hunt led to words/grunts/keening cries as well as much used gestures. 

As people lived in died generation after generation the growth of symbolic meaning became more standardized. Now, we can pass on the most advanced or mundane ideas with just a few keystrokes or utterances. [OMG, it's late gotta run CU L8R.]

Mar 16, 2009

An early gift, control of fire.

While there are many early gifts we've received from our parents, grandparents and beyond, I'm going to focus my first few posts on very early gifts that have really given us rich new ways to live on earth. Breaking and forming stone tools, the use of pigments, and accurate throwing techniques were all clearly old gifts but today's post is about Fire! With the impending spring, fire is an apt starting point to examine gifts from our past.

Residue & evidence of human's control of fire stretches back about 500,000 years. This was a very early gift passed from our ancestors to today. Across human cultures is the tradition of a cooked evening meal. Our control of fire made these cooked meals possible. Fire allows for adaptation to a wide variety of climates and weather and in cooking of food, increased access to easily digestible calories from stored items like roots, meat, & grains. 

Fire a great early gift from our ancestors!

Mar 15, 2009

Greetings from Santa Erik

Gifts: my interesting study traipsing across eons of our shared heritage. I've learned so much about sharing and curiosity that I'm thinking I must report my findings in a quiet corner of the web. I'm hoping this blog will include selected occasional posts with my thinking about our gift economy and the magic of human social interaction.

Folks who care enough to follow my posts: